National Audit Office hits brick wall over Defra agency's IT failure

[This editorial is in the hard copy of Computer Weekly this week]

Hours after the National Audit Office published an unusually critical report – its third – on the IT-based Single Payment Scheme, which is run by the Rural Payments Agency, a minister went on BBC’s “Today” programme to give the government line.
Nothing changes. When a department gets covered with opprobrium by an NAO report, the relevant minister goes on BBC’s Today programme with what could be a yellowing script.

The routine is to disparage, in measured tones, the NAO’s figures, and then say that good progress is has been made, ideally topped with a generous helping of statistics.

MPs, the media and the public are left with no inkling that parts of the department are in administrative anarchy.

Last week the farming minister Jim Fitzpatrick went on the Today programme to say of the Single Payment Scheme:

“In technology terms and IT terms, and the accuracy of the data being used, we are making progress.”

A string of statistics backed up his point. In the interview with Jim Naughtie, Fitzpatrick went on to dispute the NAO’s figures, though he added that he was “not in denial”.

Some of the NAO’s most important criticisms were that those involved in the Single Payment Scheme – including those who helped oversee a £350m IT system from Accenture to support the scheme – had been over-optimistic. Assurances given to Parliament proved optimistic, said the NAO.

Even assurances by civil servants in the Rural Payments Agency to their civil servant colleagues in Defra proved optimistic.

It’s not surprising then that the NAO’s Director Philip Gibby expressed his frustration, at a press conference last week, at having to revisit the Single Payment Scheme in a third report. Each time he is assured that progress is being made.  

So can we trust the government’s assurances about the IT? Can we trust the government’s assurances on the state of any big IT-based project or programme?

We believe that government IT failures keep happening largely because they operate in a sunshine-and-roses universe in which truth and reality are poisons nobody goes anywhere near. Not departments. Not their agencies. And not their ministers. Thank goodness then for the NAO.

But it cannot stop the government IT disasters, which continue much as they have done for decades.


NAO urges Defra agency to replace £350m system that’s only 4 years old –

Rural Payments Agency – pouring money into a digital landfill? – IT Projects blog

NAO report on Rural Payments Agency’s Single Payment Scheme – NAO October 2009

Rural Payments Agency nears collapse? – The Times

NAO says IT raises rural payments costs – Kable

Accenture’s Rural Payments Agency contract slammed by NAO – Techmarketview

Government waste

Not had your Rural Payments Agency maps yet? – Farmers Weekly